Fukushima in Our Food: Low Levels of Radiation from Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown Detected in Milk, Fruit and Vegetable Samples Tested from California Farms
June 1, 2011 | By Steven Hoffman
Commentary by Steven Hoffman
As the crippled reactors in Japan continue to emit radiation into the environment, the risk grows that it will appear in our food. Radiation has already been detected in trace amounts in milk across the U.S., and in strawberries, kale and other vegetables in California.
“The Swiss government Wednesday decided to exit nuclear energy, phasing out the country’s existing nuclear plants and seeking alternative energy sources to meet Switzerland’s energy needs, following widespread security concerns in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.” – Dow Jones, May 25, 2011
“We believe we can show those countries who decide to abandon nuclear power—or not start using it—how it is possible to achieve growth, creating jobs and economic prosperity while shifting the energy supply toward renewable energies.” – Chancellor Angela Merkel when announcing on May 30 that Germany would abandon nuclear power by 2022.
Boulder, Colo. (June 1, 2011) – Nuclear energy is clean…until it isn’t.
The emerging reality of the ongoing nuclear reactor crisis in Fukushima, Japan—now in its third month after a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused nuclear explosions at the plant 150 miles north of Tokyo—is that it is not under control at all. Three of the six reactors are in meltdown. The crippled reactors are acting like a huge dirty bomb, emitting significant quantities of radioactive isotopes that are, in fact, contaminating our air, water, soil and food in a steady stream that may continue for a long time.
And it’s not just affecting Japan, though they’re certainly getting the worst of it. Since the accident on March 12, radioactive fallout from Fukushima has been spreading to the U.S. and across the northern hemisphere. Elevated levels of radiation caused by the meltdowns in Japan have been detected in drinking water across the country, in rainwater, in soil, and in food grown on U.S. farms.
The mainstream media is not really reporting on this. Since the initial weeks of the accident, there has been a disturbing silence. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the utility that owns and operates the reactors, and the government of Japan have handled public relations around this monumental disaster about as well as BP handled the Gulf oil spill last summer, and they are losing credibility fast. The radiation has leaked much faster than TEPCO’s disclosure of information related to the crisis; it’s only now that we know that three of the six reactors at the plant are in full meltdown. One of the meltdowns occurred within hours of the accident on March 12, but was not revealed until May 15, more than two months later.
Crisis, What Crisis?
In announcing the news, TEPCO admitted that it did not want the public to know the extent of the accident early on to avoid panic. They continue to downplay the time it will take to get the reactors under control and the threat this unprecedented crisis presents to our food, health and environment. While TEPCO has given a time estimate of six to nine months to control the reactors, on May 29 a senior TEPCO official admitted that it may be impossible to stabilize the crippled plant by the beginning of 2012. One U.S. official, John Kelly, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear reactor technologies at the U.S. Energy Department, told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in late May that the Fukushima reactors are still in grave danger and may continue to vent radioactive steam for a year or more, according to the Washington Post.
With the reactors in meltdown, TEPCO employees are racing to avoid a potential “China Syndrome” as superhot nuclear fuel melts down through holes burned into the steel and concrete containment vessels into the earth, thus liberating it into the environment.
Additionally, highly toxic radioactive iodine, cesium, strontium, plutonium and other toxic man-made radionuclides have leaked unabated since March 12 into the ocean and atmosphere. The radiation is contaminating large areas of Japan. Monitoring the ocean around the Fukushima plant, Greenpeace reported on May 26 that the contamination is spreading over a wide area and accumulating in sea life, rather than simply dispersing like the Japanese authorities claimed would happen.
Also, radiation continues to blow in a steady stream across the Pacific Ocean toward North America, following the course of the jet stream in the atmosphere, and major currents in the ocean that flow from Japan to America. It took less than a month for radioactive iodine and cesium from the Fukushima nuclear accident to first show up in U.S. milk, and it continues to be detected in trace amounts in milk produced in California, one of the only states conducting any kind of testing for radiation in food.
Independent Tests Indicate Radiation Is Entering the U.S. Food Chain
Authorities in the U.S. insist that there is no danger to public health or the environment from the Fukushima nuclear crisis, and that levels of radiation that have been detected in water, air, soil and food in North America since the accident are in such minuscule quantities as to present little to no danger. EPA discontinued its Fukushima radiation monitoring efforts, and FDA says there is no danger to our food or seafood and therefore testing is not necessary. There have been no calls since the accident for heightened nuclear safety inspections or to upgrade or decommission aging nuclear power plants in the U.S.
Yet, in limited testing conducted by states and independent labs since the accident, radioactive iodine and cesium—both toxic to human health—have appeared at elevated levels in milk and vegetables produced in California. Radiation has also been detected in milk sold in Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, Vermont and Washington since the accident.
Elevated levels of radioactivity have also been detected in drinking water in numerous municipalities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, and in soil samples tested in California. Fallout is blanketing America and will do so for a prolonged period of time until they can somehow stop the crippled reactors from leaking any more radiation into the environment—a formidable task.
On May 25, the University of California Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering (UCB)—one of the few organizations testing food, soil, air and water in the U.S.—reported that it had detected the highest level of radioactive cesium 137 in nearly a month in raw milk samples taken from a dairy in Sonoma County where the cows are grass fed. UCB also reported elevated levels of cesium 134 and cesium 137 in pasteurized, homogenized milk samples with a “best by” date of May 26 from a Bay Area organic dairy “where the farmers are encouraged to feed their cows local grass.”
Iodine 131 in California Milk Suggests New Fallout Continues
The State of California reported on May 2 that it detected higher levels of radioactive iodine 131 in milk samples tested at CalPoly Dairy Farm in San Luis Obispo compared to milk tested at the end of March. Additionally, the new milk samples contained trace amounts of radioactive cesium 134 and cesium 137, which were not seen in the March samples. The presence of iodine 131, with a short half-life of eight days, in the new milk samples indicates that even now, nuclear reactions are occurring at the crippled Japanese plant, bringing fresh fallout on a daily basis to Asia, North America and around the northern hemisphere.
The UCB nuclear engineering department emphasizes that levels of radiation measured in food samples grown in the U.S. are very low, and that there is little threat to public health from the fallout reaching the U.S. Yet they continue to find radioactivity at heightened levels due to the Fukushima meltdown in food grown in northern California—their chosen area of testing near the university. Little to no testing is being done in the rest of the country.
Dairy farmers on the Big Island of Hawaii, on the other hand, are taking a preventive approach to some of the highest levels of radiation detected in the U.S., and are now feeding boron in the form of sodium borate to their cows and goats at milking times along with kelp supplements as a way to help reduce elevated levels of radiation in milk. The dairy farmers are also considering applying boron to their pastures to mitigate radiation levels in the grass, reported Energy News on May 25. Boron is reported to act as a natural radiation absorber, and kelp may help prevent radioactive iodine from accumulating in the body.
Radiation Concentrates in Milk and Broad-leaf Vegetables
Radiation concentrates in milk because cows eat grass, and grass and broad-leafed vegetables such as spinach and kale are among the first crops to accumulate radiation from nuclear fallout when it comes down in rain and dust and settles on the leaves and surrounding soil.
Organically raised cows are more vulnerable, as they are required to eat grass as part of organic certification standards, reports NewHope360.com, an industry news source. However, organic proponents ensure consumers that any levels of radiation are minute and present no risk, and that the benefits of consuming organic milk far outweigh any such risks.
In Japan, spinach grown in the region around Fukushima was banned soon after the accident. Two months later, in mid-May, radiation above maximum allowable limits was detected in tea leaves harvested from farms south of Tokyo—farms that are 200 miles from the crippled reactors, indicating that Japan’s radiation contamination problem is far from over. Radiation has also been detected in potatoes and sweet potatoes in Japan. In fact, according to a report published on May 29 by the Japan Agriculture Ministry, potatoes may be more susceptible to radiation contamination than other vegetables. Sadly, radiation also has been detected in breast milk from several women in the Tokyo area, raising significant health risks for pregnant women, new mothers and children.
In the U.S., certain fruit and vegetables grown in California are testing positive for elevated levels of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident. On May 16, UCB reported detectable levels of radioactive cesium 137 in samples of kale, strawberries and grass grown in northern California. UCB has also found higher than normal levels of cesium 134 and cesium 137 in foods grown in the Bay Area, including spinach, arugula and wild-harvested mushrooms.
Eating Radiation Isn’t the Same as Flying in a Plane
The danger, of course, is that ingesting or inhaling long-lived, man-made radioactive particles over a long period of time in our water, dust, soil and food is very different than being exposed to electromagnetic radiation from a television or cosmic radiation from a plane ride. Once it gets in the body, lodging in bones, glands and other organs, it can damage DNA and cells for a long time, significantly raising the cumulative risk of cancer. Radioactive cesium 137 alone has a half-life of 30 years, where it can remain in the body emanating radiation the whole time. The risks are particularly high for pregnant women, infants and children.
Many scientists, including those at Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), claim that no level of man-made toxic radiation in the air, water or food is safe. “There is no safe level of radionuclide exposure, whether from food, water or other sources. Period,” said Jeff Patterson, DO, immediate past president of PSR, in late March. “Exposure to radionuclides, such as iodine 131 and cesium 137, increases the incidence of cancer. For this reason, every effort must be taken to minimize the radionuclide content in food and water,” he said.
“Consuming food containing radionuclides is particularly dangerous. If an individual ingests or inhales a radioactive particle, it continues to irradiate the body as long as it remains radioactive and stays in the body,” said Alan Lockwood, MD, board member of PSR. “Children are much more susceptible to the effects of radiation and stand a much greater chance of developing cancer than adults,” said Andrew Kanter, MD, president-elect of PSR’s board. “So it is particularly dangerous when they consume radioactive food or water.”
Europe Issues Caution on Certain Foods: Risks “No Longer Negligible”
In France, the respected radiological research institute CRIIRAD in mid-April cautioned pregnant and breastfeeding women and children in Europe to avoid eating certain foods due to the spread of radiation from Fukushima, including milk and creamy cheese, and spinach and other broad leaf vegetables, due to the potential health risks associated with ingesting radioactive particles that may accumulate in these foods. In making the announcement, CRIIRAD said the risks related to prolonged contamination among vulnerable groups of the population can no longer be considered “negligible” and it is now necessary to avoid “risky behavior.” CRIIRAD also estimated that the West Coast of the U.S. is being subjected to eight to 10 times higher levels of radiation than Europe from the nuclear meltdown in Japan.
Chris Busby, Ph.D., Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, who published a “Don’t Panic” guide in early April saying that the danger was insignificant, later changed his opinion. In an April 24 statement to Washington’s Blog, Busby said, “…since then I have re-thought this advice as the thing is still fissioning and releasing 10 to the fourteen Becquerels a day. This will mean that strontium 90 and uranium and particulates will be building up in the USA and Europe. I will assess this later but for now I think it prudent to stop drinking milk.”
This is not something the dairy industry—conventional or organic—nor the produce industry, much of which is based in California, want to hear. One official at a major California-based organic produce company told me, “It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I first heard the news about radioactive spinach in Japan.”
What Can We Do About It?
While we may not be able to affect what’s going on at Fukushima, we could certainly try to prevent such an accident from happening again. We need to express our concern and speak out to the President, who supports nuclear power, and Congress and insist that aging reactors be inspected regularly, upgraded for safety, and decommissioned when necessary. Letter writing works when you’ve got lots of constituents doing it.
This global-scale crisis happened from just one nuclear power plant. There are 104 nuclear reactors in operation in the U.S., with a number of them located in major earthquake and tsunami zones in heavily populated areas along the West Coast of the United States. God forbid something should happen close to home; we are in no way prepared to handle an accident of this magnitude. Heck, we couldn’t even get help to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in a timely manner, let alone evacuate all of southern California, for example.
We also should insist on increased, not scaled-back, testing for radiation in our air, water, soil and food. It is unconscionable that our public institutions established to safeguard food, health and the environment have neglected this responsibility. Food producers, too, need timely access to this information from federal, state and regulatory agencies.
What to do about food? As I make my livelihood in the food industry, it is difficult for me to say that pregnant women, breastfeeding moms, infants and children might want to avoid certain foods such as milk and broad-leaf vegetables that may present a higher risk of radiation exposure, and to check the source of their drinking water.
However, as an advocate of public health and the environment, that’s what I think needs to be said. I would refer readers to CRIIRAD‘s recommendations to certain vulnerable segments of the European population. I believe our food, water, health and environment have been terribly compromised by this global nuclear catastrophe, and I also think that, after poor Japan, which may have to evacuate large portions of its sovereign land, the U.S. is directly downwind and downstream, so to speak, from the Fukushima disaster.
What our family is doing this summer is buying more locally grown food. We live in Colorado and I’m hoping the Rocky Mountains will take some of the stuff out of the air. But I am concerned for my friends on the West Coast and Hawaii. And frankly, the whole country, hemisphere and world will continue to be exposed to the fallout emitted from one nuclear power plant located thousands of miles away. And my prayers go to Japan. The world is truly a small place.
In my lifetime, there has been Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima, which is quickly surpassing Chernobyl as one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters…and those are just the ones they’ve told us about. Basically, we have experienced a major nuclear accident about once every 20 years. That is not good odds, given that there are hundreds of reactors around the world. This type of incident could happen anywhere, whether it be from natural disaster or human error. With Fukushima in full meltdown, it is a very good time to speak out that nuclear power is not safe, and the cost is way too high.
Get the Facts: News and Resources
All the facts I have included in this commentary have come from the following sources. These are excellent resources, backed with scientific credibility, to inform you about what’s really going on at Fukushima and its impact on our environment and health.
• Energy News
One of the best, comprehensive sources of news and scientific information related to the Fukushima nuclear accident, with information on food, milk, soil and air.
• Fairewinds Associates
An excellent and informative series of no-nonsense news videos featuring nuclear energy expert Arnold Gundersen reporting on the accident.
• University of California Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering
Results from monitoring of Bay Area food, milk, air, water and soil.
• Russia Today
Russia’s English-speaking news source, with coverage of the Fukushima disaster from a Russian perspective.
• NHK World
International news service of NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), with in-depth coverage in English.
Pestering Japanese authorities like it chases whaling ships, Greenpeace published on May 26 that it detected radiation in marine life around the Fukushima plant at levels above the maximum safety limit.
Columnist Jeff McMahon has been reporting extensively on the Fukushima accident.
• Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones
- Wall Street Journal is subscription based, however, Ameritrade provides a headline and news brief feed from Dow Jones Newswire.
- WSJ’s Japan Real Time nuclear coverage.
• New York Times
- Staff writer Matthew L. Wald has been covering the Fukushima crisis.
- Reporter Hiroki Tabuchi has also been covering the story.
- Writer Martin Fackler’s coverage of the Fukushima accident.
Extensive coverage from the business and financial news source.
• Compass Natural
Kelp and the Fallout Zone: Foods that help protect against radiation.
Steven Hoffman writes on issues in sustainable food and agriculture. He is Managing Partner of Compass Natural LLC, a full service marketing, communications and public relations agency serving natural, organic and sustainable businesses. He also is Co-owner of Best Organics, a leading provider of premium artisan organic gift box collections. He is Cofounder of the annual LOHAS Forum green business conference, former Director of The Organic Center, a leading scientific research organization, and former Editorial Director of the Natural Foods Merchandiser, a well-respected industry publication. Hoffman also served as Program Director for Natural Products Expo, the world’s largest natural and organic products trade expositions. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Hoffman specialized in food and farming in Central America. He is a former director of the Philadelphia Urban Gardening Program, and he holds a M.S. in Agriculture from Penn State University. Visit www.compassnatural.com, moc.larutanssapmocnull@evets, tel 303.807.1042.